Tyler Cowen presents a reader question about flight attendant ‘fake pleasant speech’ — which questioner Robert refers to as “robotic beauty queen.”
Tyler believes that the facade is important to maintain because a more relaxed, casual approach would belie true feelings of contempt for passengers amongst half of flight attendants.
Certainly this is a common stereotype, the Wikipedia entry on flight attendants even references the old Saturday Night Live skit with David Spade and Helen Hunt, “Total Bastard Airlines,” where the flight attendants bid passengers adieu with a sarcasm-laden “Buh Bye.” (Here is the skit on Russian RuTube, the stereotype resonates with pilots as well, the old skit gets relatively recent reference at the Professional Pilots Rumor Network bulletin board forum.)
I believe that on the whole though flight attendant interaction with customers is driven more by how flight attendants feel about their company, where they are in their trip (short overnight layovers at crummy airport hotels can ruin anyone’s day!), and the fact that the interactions are repeated on a very large scale which dehumanizes the effort to some degree. Plus I get a dig in at unions for good measure, but I think union work rules are only a minor contributor (as non-union Delta has, in my experience, only moderately more personal flight attendants than say American.)
Now, I’ve experienced flight attendants who are contemptuous of their customers. While I’ve also had good crews with United Airlines, it’s not at all a part of the airline culture, this is the airline whose official announcement declares that flight attendants are there primarly for your safety.
Of course, United is also the airline that introduced flight attendants in the first place. And it was one of the leaders in unionization as well, former airline President Pat Patterson pioneered turning employee scheduling over to the unions, believing that they were closer to the needs of their members than the company was. And in the heavily unionized sector, there’s little relationship between customer service and pay or advancement. There are modest efforts, like giving most frequent customers certificates that they can offer to employees who go above and beyond (and those certificates then in turn serve as raffle tickets for modest drawings), those efforts are very much at the margins.
Though even at a United, the differences in customer service — aside from the occasional flight attendant who simply by force of personality exudes an outward love for customers and their job, by no fault of the company’s or its work rules — can be seen on a route-by-route basis. United’s flight attendants are often the most indifferent in premium cabins (where there are fewer passengers to serve) on the most interesting international routes. That’s because the most jaded tend to be the most senior, and flight attendants ‘bid’ or pick their routes based on seniority. And they also bid their work position on the plane in a similar fashion. So you get the ironic outcome of serving your highest paying customers with the highest seniority crew members who often want to offer superior service the least. (Customers have given senior flight attendants serving United’s transpacific routes the moniker “prison matron.”)
On the whole I’ve had more enthusiastic service from flight attendants with Delta, Alaska, and Continental. Delta, whose flight attendants are non-union, will vote later this month on whether to unionize as their pre-merger Northwest flight attendants had been.
Still, the differences have been marginal, and Delta’s operations have been relatively similar in terms of incentives. The airline has taken more cultural approaches to improve flight attendant demeanor, such as the introduction of a glamorous ‘red dress.’ (Unions have complained that the sexy optional red dress isn’t offered in plus-sizes, and pilots evaluate female Delta flight attendant figures based on whether or no they are “RDQ” or ‘Red Dress Qualified’).) The archetype here is the flight attendant from the airline’s safety video, Deltalina.
But as to why flight attendant speech seems somewhat unnatural, I suspect that it’s as much a function of giving the same talk several times a day, every working day, for years. And seeing hundreds of passengers on each and every flight. So that each interaction seems, to many, less than real and more rehearsed. Whether or not they like people, customers, or more likely their attitudes are driven by feelings about their employer or whether or not they came off a tough trip with little sleep at a dingy airport hotel.
And even there the biggest differences are cultural. As mentioned in the comments to Tyler’s post, flight attendants on Singapore Arlines come across quite differently:
Singapore Airlines has staff who very much represent the country’s approach to customer service – polite, yet firm. Some basic chit-chat but clearly they are there to ensure that everyone is safe and that the food is served. I don’t think anyone would accuse them of being robotic or fake.
In fact, Singapore flight attendants are often referred to as ‘robotic’ in style .. but in a completely different way. They are practiced and purposeful and offer very specific, high levels of polite service virtually every time. And some customers find such interactions awkward (or ‘robotic’).
Southwest, and to some extent Jetblue, have achieved more down-to-earth ‘folksy’ cultures where interactios with airline staff may seem more real. So has Alaska Airlines. Asian carriers (especially Singapore, Cathay Pacific, All Nippon, and Asiana in my experience) offer a practiced, robotic service at the high-end. While American and some European carriers offer it at the low-end. With some variation, less formal cultures may seem to offer more genuine interactions, whether those interactions are positive or negative, here I have in mind Australian’s Qantas in particular.
Personally I’ll take the pracitced, routinized, robotic service from Singapore over the indifferent and robotic service I’ve gotten from many crews of US-based carriers over the years.
And I’m not sure that as a customer I’m looking for genuine, ‘real’ interaction with flight attendants anyway. We’re stuck in a metal tube for a fixed number of hours, put together with each other not by choice but by shared purpose of reaching a destination at a fixed period of time, and except for an airline’s most frequent customers and flight attendants given to flying the same routes, are unlikely ever to cross paths again. Why make the interpersonal investment? Why open up and be genuine?